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Editor’s blog – Leadership lessons: Manchester United Football Club as a case study

By Dean Carroll

Proponents of two-term limits for those holding public office usually point to examples of corruption or politicians gone stale as proof that no job should be for life, no matter how successful you are. For even the finest wines taste bitter eventually. Generally, Sir Alex Ferguson and entrepreneurs aside, the world now operates to this maxim. Very few people stay in one job or with one company and an increasing number of freelancers toil for a number of different organisations at once.

This gives those workers that need it, flexibility and freedom. On the flipside, businesses are happy as they are not burdened with having to foot the bill for employee pensions and benefits. We live in a disposable world from all perspectives. Cast iron contracts between a paternal employer and devoted members of staff are, in the main, a thing of the past.

Just look at the growth of private equity firms, or ‘asset strippers’ as critics label them, and temporary staff agencies in recent decades. Look to the slew of job cuts resulting from offshoring and the economic crisis. And even those working within the higher echelons of a prestigious organisation always keep one promiscuous eye on the horizon for the next opportunity to move up and out. A good example was former Real Madrid Football Club manager Jose Mourhino, who faced accusations that he was simply ‘a trophy hunter’ because of his wandering career. Although, admittedly, he now seems keen to replicate Ferguson’s triumphs at Man Utd by staying with the one club in his heart – Chelsea. For now, at least.

Of course, the antithesis to peripatetic careerists is Ferguson. Having remained at Manchester United Football Club as manager since 1986 before retiring last May, he weathered many storms with his own unique brand of loyalty and leadership. In essence, he remoulded the whole club in his own image – tough, creative and driven to win. It is doubtful will we ever see a football manager stay at one club for a quarter of a century again. Look at rival Premiership club Chelsea, pre-Mourhino’s second coming, where the turnover of managers has averaged two per season in recent years. Even Pep Guardiola decided to seek new challenges away from his beloved FC Barcelona, walking out at a time when it was considered to be the best football team in the world.

Therefore, we have to commend Fergie for his devotion to one employer and for his commitment to deliver time and time again for a single set of supporters. But we must also acknowledge that he was the right man in the right place at the right time. Sir Alex was there to witness the launch of the Premiership. Consequently, he was able to fully capitalise on the influx of big money coming into football from television deals by buying the best foreign players – not to mention the serendipity of stumbling across the club’s best youth team in a generation.

He was also given a certain degree of ownership over the entire Man Utd project. In the modern climate with the hunt for immediate success and the loose ties between those at the top and their dependants below, were Ferguson just starting out today he may not have been given the time to fulfil his true potential. And we will see how long David Moyes is now given to return the club to its winning ways. In conclusion, we must admire Ferguson’s loyalty. But at the same time, we have to realise that such staying power is now in short supply across all areas of life – from governments and the business world to consumer brands and even cultural experiences.

Our society is a mishmash and that is the way most people seem to like it. Indeed, loyalty is a quality for which there is little demand. Fergie is a one-off, a man who lived and breathed one institution. He is also, unfortunately, a creature of yesteryear. Ferguson’s passing of the baton to the next generation of fickle managers is symbolic of the wider societal changes we are witnessing across public institutions and the private sector. Sad but true.

Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review. Follow him on Twitter @poljourno and follow Policy Review @Policyrev

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